This month marks the debut of Richard Poynder's
new bimonthly column, which will tackle many of the issues affecting the
While attending an industry meeting in New Orleans 15 years ago, seasoned
patent searcher Stu Kaback was approached by two colleagues. "Wouldn't
it be great," they said, "if we could occasionally get together and talk
about what we need without any vendors around?"
Initially skeptical (Kaback thought, "Gee, with so many meetings to
attend, do we really need another one?"), he later came around to the idea,
and the Patent Information Users Group (PIUG) was born.
PIUG's raison d'être was to act as an advocacy group for patent
searchers. "Our meetings would involve sitting down, asking what problems
we faced as searchers, and then deciding what we have to yell at this vendor
about, and what we have to yell at that vendor about," explains Kaback,
currently a director on the PIUG board.
While the early meetings were little more than a few colleagues getting
together in borrowed offices, PIUG benefited from havinga core group of
active members and a rising tide of interest in intellectual property.
Today, PIUG membership stands at around 500, its mailing list boasts an
international audience of 1,400, and the PIUG annual conference has become
the patent information industry event.
In recent months, however, concern has grown that PIUG may have lost
sight of its original purpose. This concern raises questions not just about
the future direction of PIUG, but of the ability of any user group to retain
its independence if it comes to rely on sponsorship from vendors.
Matters came to a head in March, when Alan Engel, the president of small
information vendor Paterra, posted a bitter message to the mailing list
announcing his intention of pulling out of the PIUG 2002 Annual Conference.
Complaining that a speaker from Derwent Information had been given preferential
treatment, he said, "The program chair has justified this by the large
amount of money that Derwent is putting into PIUG 2002."
While hardly on a par with the sponsorship scandal that rocked the 2002
Winter Olympics, the incident has underlined the difficulties confronting
industry user groups.With limited resources and rising organizational costs,
it can be very difficult to survive without the financial support of the
very companies that such groups are founded to "yell at"—leading to inevitable
conflicts of interest.
The extent of the financial constraints faced by user groups should
not be underestimated. Earlier this year the U.K.'s Institute of Information
Scientists (IIS) was compelled to merge with the Library Association, forming
the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP).
The less fortunate International Federation for Information and Documentation
(FID) found the financial exigencies too onerous and has had to cease operating
A Regrettable Misunderstanding
But what exactly took place between Paterra, Derwent, and PIUG to cause
such bitterness, and what relevance—if any—does it have for the wider information
Alas, we know no more than Engel's original posting. Engel himself refuses
to discuss the matter with Information Today, PIUG will say no more
than that it was a regrettable misunderstanding, and—not surprisingly—Derwent
also prefers not to comment. "I have no intention of responding to Mr.
Engel's claims, which I believe are directed at PIUG rather than Derwent,"
says Peter McKay, Derwent's managing director.
For lay members of PIUG, however, Engel's posting set off alarm bells.
It was not so much his allegations, as the way that the PIUG board responded
to them. Immediately following Engel's posting, one of PIUG's directors-at-large
e-mailed the following injunction to other board members: "DO NOT respond
to Alan Engle's [sic] posting on the e-mail list.... Let it die a quiet
death. He wants attention. DO NOT GIVE IT TO HIM. Most people will never
read the message...."
To the chagrin of PIUG, the message was mistakenly copied to the mailing
list, thereby flagging—rather than downplaying—Engel's complaint and sparking
a flurry of replies pointing out that the board's attitude directly contradicted
everything that PIUG stood for. After all, commented one member, speaking
to me later on condition of anonymity, "If Alan wants to put a complaint
on the list—which I thought was an open forum—then the matter should be
open and discussed."
"I was appalled," commented another, also requesting anonymity. "First,
I don't like anybody telling me what to do. Second, I thought there was
some substance to Alan's complaint, even if I wouldn't personally handle
it the same way."
The reaction of the PIUG board, then, only served to reinforce Engel's
allegation, creating a "no smoke without fire" impression. It also fed
the suspicion held by some vendors that the PIUG board is prone to cronyism.
"While PIUG membership is quite broad—with people from all areas of the
intellectual property sector—most of those on the board come from the petrochemical,
chemical, and pharmaceutical sectors. As a result, a small group of vendors
specializing in those areas get away with a lot more than the rest of us,"
complains an employee from one of the online hosts.
For others it was final proof that—rather than remaining a champion
for the user—PIUG had succumbed to the same monopolistic tendencies frequently
ascribed to the larger vendors.
It turns out, for instance, that Paterra is not the only small vendor
to have crossed swords with PIUG. An employee of one—speaking on condition
of anonymity—recounts his anger at the proprietorial reaction of the PIUG
board when his company tried to organize a fringe workshop at the recent
PIUG conference in Berkeley, California. "The message I get was that they
own Berkeley for that week."
Is this the price user groups can expect to pay for seeking vendor sponsorship
to support their activities? Certainly if PIUG had held to its initial
intention of barring vendors from its meetings, such controversy would
have been avoided.
Advocacy to Education
So how and why did PIUG mutate from advocacy group to sponsored conference
organizer? And what lessons, if any, does it hold for other user groups?
Over time, explains Kaback, a feeling developed that, in addition to
advocacy, PIUG should play an educational role for members. While at first
this consisted of organizing talks and presentations by independent patent
experts and specialists, PIUG found itself coming under increasing pressure
from vendors—who saw considerable advantage in being able to pitch to what
was clearly an increasingly valuable audience. "They said, 'Can we become
members; can we come to your meetings; can we get more involved?'" explains
Kaback. "So we talked about it, and we decided that we had something to
learn from the vendors, and we wanted to have two-way communication with
At the same time, PIUG was discovering that organizing meetings is an
expensive business. While its 1997 meeting cost just $3,000, by 2001 this
had escalated to $76,000. Moreover, Kaback says, when you add in room guarantees
you end up with a meeting budget of some $200,000. For an organization
with an annual subscription income of around $15,000, this meant PIUG was
having to punch considerably above its weight. "Think of that with a volunteer
organization that has no corporate backing," says Kaback.
For PIUG, then, sponsorship soon became an essential ingredient for
survival. Today vendors can sponsor its annual conference in a variety
of ways—contributing anything from $1,000 to put a product table in the
"demo room," to $9,000 to provide a free lunch for delegates (for which
in return they receive a free meeting room, a table in the exhibits room,
a speaker slot, and a smorgasbord of "mentions").
Nonetheless, insists Kaback, PIUG cuts no special deals with sponsors.
"Sponsorship gets the sponsor an acknowledgement, and that is usually associated
with some airtime, but it doesn't purchase any favoritism. We have been
really very, very careful about that."
Questions of Funding
So should we be concerned about vendor sponsorship? Many insist not,
arguing that it is in fact a truly win-win arrangement. Dismissing the
Engel affair as a "one-off and very specific case," for instance, the head
of external relations at CILIP, Tim Owen, argues, "Vendor sponsorship is
fine as long as the terms are carefully negotiated, clear, and transparent,
and benefit both parties."
MicroPatent, which is a regular sponsor of the PIUG conference, takes
the same view. "Our sponsorship does not change or influence the objectives
of the annual meeting or the goals of the group," insists Laura Gaze, director
of marketing at MicroPatent. "Rather, it allows everyone to better enjoy
And after all, most sponsorship in the industry amounts to little more
than the occasional free meal or branded pen. Nonetheless, even such small
gifts can influence people, or why else would vendors donate them? What
we cannot say for sure is the extent of this influence, or whether it is
having a corrosive effect on the industry.
Certainly the Engel affair has left some PIUG members wondering. Whatever
the reality of the allegations, it has drawn attention to the inevitable
conflict of interest flowing from accepting money from organizations that
you are—in effect—supposedto be policing. Instead of yelling at vendors,
PIUG is now providing them with another sales channel. As one of the PIUG
members I spoke to puts it: "It raises questions about funding and how
independent PIUG can be from large sponsors."
As a former executive director of the European Association of Information
Services (EUSIDIC), Barry Mahon has experienced vendor sponsorship in all
its guises. While agreeing that it can indeed benefit both users and vendors,
he points out that it also inevitably dilutes criticism. At the very least,
he says, it means that sometimes "chairpeople refuse to allow 'nasty' questions
to speakers from sponsoring organizations."
Minor censorship like this is hardly a serious crime. Nor is it always
a bad thing where inappropriate criticism might run counter to the objectives
of a particular meeting. But for any organization founded on the principle
of user advocacy, it must surely raise suspicions that the tail is starting
to wag the dog.
For some, however, vendor sponsorship poses a far greater threat. The
fear is that it could stifle innovation and thus retard the development
of the industry, since the increasing pressure for airtime at events such
as those organized by PIUG can cause smaller vendors to be pushed aside
by the (almost inevitably larger and wealthier) sponsors.
Referring to the growing dominance of the large vendors at the PIUG
conference, for instance, one of the members I spoke to commented, "I think
what is being squeezed on the program are presentations from smaller vendors,
and maybe topics that are not so mainline [but that] may represent emerging
topics and technologies."
After all, she adds: "It could be argued that there are other venues
for delegates to learn what's new at the larger vendors, because they have
larger marketing and publicity budgets.... The question is whether delegates
also want to be kept up-to-date on what's new and innovative [from the]
small vendors.... PIUG may be doing its members a disservice by not giving
them ample airtime."
This is a point also made by Engel in his message: "I have come to the
inescapable conclusion," he said, "that there is no room for a small, innovative
company at PIUG 2002."
What, then, is the way forward? In Europe an alternative model for
enabling user/vendor interaction is the creation of cross-industry organizations
where membership is open to both users and vendors. This is the model adopted,
for instance, by the City Information Group (CiG; formerly a special interest
group of the IIS, now an independent company) and by EUSIDIC.
"This unique position," says EUSIDIC chair Johan van Halm, "prevents
us from mixing up the interests of both parties. We stimulate both interests
and are a platform for information exchange between both parties, which
need each other."
But this, surely, is just another way of propagating the big lie at
the heart of most discussions about vendor sponsorship: that the interests
of vendors and customers are, or could ever be, commensurate. As individual
consumers we all know this to be nonsense, so why does the information
industry seek to pretend otherwise?
The reality is that the often unacknowledged objective of vendors is
to maximize sales at the maximum possible cost to the user. Almost invariably,
the primary objective of users is the exact opposite: to minimize purchases
at the lowest possible price. These are two entirely contradictory objectives.
User members of CiG, for example, are quite clear that the organization's
focus has little to do with user advocacy. As an information professional
working in a City of London investment bank said to me recently: "It is
very difficult to find an umbrella body able to bat for customers as a
group. The CiG certainly doesn't since it is composed of both vendors and
information users. As such it simply can't reflect the interests of the
information user alone."
Nor, surely, can user-only advocacy groups once they have become financially
dependent on vendor sponsorship. Moreover, as the industry continues to
consolidate, so the balance of power in the sponsorship relationship will
shift ever further toward the vendor and away from the user.
Explains Mahon: "When there were a number of producers/suppliers/vendors,
even if some were bigger than others, the situation was reasonably equitable.
As the ownership of information sources has concentrated, so the big two/three
have tended to pick and choose their sponsorship."
In other words, as the pool of sponsoring organizations gets smaller,
the tendency for vendor-sponsored user groups to yell at vendors will wither
away and die, and the products and services on offer will deteriorate in
The good news is that the Engel affair has provided food for thought.
In its post-Engel newsletter, PIUG sets out the "general principles" by
which the organization handles sponsorship and allocates speaker slots
at its meetings. Explains PIUG director-at-large Edlyn Simons (not the
director who responded to Engel's posting): "We've been trying to follow
the principles listed in the newsletter, but from some individual perspectives,
we acknowledge that we may not have always succeeded."
PIUG has also begun to seek alternative (non-vendor) sources of sponsorship.
In fact, one of the sponsors of this year's annual conference was biotech
company Genentech. "Genentech has provided sponsorship not because it is
a vendor, but because its employees are members and because they believe
it is a worthy organization to support,"says Kaback. "We are going to try
to increase that kind of sponsorship."
We must hope that PIUG is successful in decoupling sponsorship from
salesmanship, since—whatever the truth of the allegations—the harsh reality
underlined by the Engel affair is that the acceptance of vendor sponsorship
by user groups is fraught with potential controversy and eventually counter
to the interests of the user.
Earlier this year Kaback posted a series of increasingly frustrated
messages on the PIUG mailing list complaining about the quality of patent
records. He ended with the question, "Am I the only individual who is upset
by this sort of thing?"
We should not doubt that other users also get upset by poor-quality
products and services. What we should doubt is the proposition that vendor
sponsorship and user advocacy can ever be comfortable bedfellows.
Is there an issue of relevance to the information industry that you
would like examined, a story you feel should be told, or an industry player
you would like to see interviewed? Please send your suggestions to Richard
Poynder at the e-mail address below.
Richard Poynder is a U.K.-based freelance journalist who specializes
in intellectual property and the information industry. He writes for a
number of information publications, and contributes regularly to the London
Times. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.